Change the World? Advertising Has Hard Enough Time Selling Products

Contrary to President Clinton's Beliefs, Ad People Cannot Be Responsible for Divining the Truth

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So President Clinton thinks the DirecTV ads are the greatest thing since sliced bread.

He also contends that advertising people have the power to solve world problems.

I don't believe either proposition is true.

DirecTV ads are funny, but not exactly effective.
DirecTV ads are funny, but not exactly effective.

Mr. Clinton said at the Cannes ad festival that the DirecTV commercials were funny and creative. That they are, but they also don't give a bona fide reason to dump cable and convert to the satellite TV service.

Meanwhile, DirecTV competitor Dish Network is getting lots of publicity from its single-storage DVR device called Hopper. One function of Hopper, Auto Hop, enables viewers to completely bypass commercials when they play back recorded programs on the major networks, and the networks have sued Dish to stop it from providing the technology.

Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen, in defense of Auto Hop, said the commercial-eliminating system shields children from fast food and alcohol ads.

So while DirecTV is amusing people, Dish is saving their children from obesity and alcoholism.

Making things even more unsettled, DirecTV has dropped Viacom's cable channels, including Nickelodeon and MTV , over a money dispute. In a similar dispute, Dish has dropped AMC. This leaves subscribers to both unsure of what they're getting. (According to SNL Kagan, DirecTV had 20 million U.S. subscribers at the end of the first quarter of 2012 and Dish had 14 million.)

On the save-the-world front, President Clinton contended that ad people can confront issues of the day by setting the record straight on the truth. "You can have a major impact by telling what the facts are. There is an enormous amount of misinformation, inappropriate emphasis, and focus on the trivial and fleeting," Mr. Clinton told a packed crowd at Cannes.

"A lot of the facts that will form the trend lines of the future are not apparent to people. Explain what the issue is , then give an idea of how to do something about it. The power of example matters. The communicators will have a profound influence on how the next 20 to 30 years will turn out," the former president stated.

"What people need is honest, synthesized communication," he continued. "And I can't think of any other group of people more likely to make it happen than you. We need people like you to fire our imagination and to fill our brains as well as our hearts. You know how to overcome people's inherent resistance to hearing a set of facts they hadn't imagined were true, yet are."

Wow, that 's a lot of responsibility heaped on the shoulders of the advertising community. And is their interpretation of the truth any more valid than the warring factions that dominate the dialog now?

Take, for example, the warring factions of cable and satellite TV. Both sides have arsenals of facts with which to bombard each other, but the DirecTV ads President Clinton likes so much abandon the confrontational approach and don't even try to assault viewers with a version of superior service.

The DirecTV commercials, which go through a horrible sequence of events all caused by problems with cable TV, are without a doubt funny and clever. One spot opens with a cable subscriber on hold. "When your cable company keeps you on hold, you get angry. When you get angry, you go blow off steam." Cut to a guy playing racquetball. "When you go blow off steam, accidents happen"—he gets hit in the eye with the ball. "When you get an eye patch, people think you're tough. When people think you're tough, people want to see how tough. When people want to see how tough, you wake up in a roadside ditch. Don't wake up in a roadside ditch. Get rid of cable and upgrade to DirecTV."

Is the theory here that people will be so thankful and appreciative that they don't have to sort out all the conflicting reasons why cable or satellite is better that they'll sign up for DirecTV out of sheer gratitude? As Jack Nicholson says in "A Few Good Men," "You can't handle the truth." Maybe people are getting tired of trying to figure out who's right and who's wrong. Making commercial and moral judgments is tiring work, especially when the results are often so inconclusive.

President Clinton's call to arms -- "You know how to overcome people's inherent resistance to hearing a set of facts they hadn't imagined were true, yet are" -- is built on the premise that ad people somehow are able to divine what the truth is . The truth is what the client says it is , and the client doesn't have any inside pipeline to the truth either. If the client is Germany, the truth is austerity; if it's France, the truth is stimulus. That difference of opinion has caused a gigantic Euromess that is sure to affect our November elections.

DirecTV's humorous approach is risky stuff. Up to now the satellite service has been quite successful touting things like its NFL Sunday Ticket package ( says the strategy helped it sign a record 327,000 new subscribers during the third quarter of 2011 alone). The "See what happens when you make bad decisions" campaign provides no concrete reason to switch, and it might be the biggest bad decision DirecTV has ever made.

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